Published on August 16th, 2013 | by Becky Castle Miller

Disgust and Contempt

He had barely launched into his conspiracy theory when I felt the left edge of my top lip creep upward and my nose wrinkle. This no-name man had just interrupted a moment I’d been looking forward to for months, and now his rambling words had me trapped.

I was a speaker at a national convention, and I’d finally shaken hands with a personal hero who was speaking at a much higher profile session than mine. (Squealing might have happened when I found out he would be available for pictures and hellos after his talk.)

I’d smiled for our picture, held out his book for a signature, and thanked him for his work, but now this lowly attendee was destroying the experience. All to tell both me and the high-profile speaker his cunning idea to fix our industry, the industry I’d worked in for five years and the older speaker had worked in as a globally recognized expert for over 20 years.

The interrupter was a crackpot. As he spoke, I listed in my head thirty-seven rebuttals to his ideas. I tried to keep a polite face, but my twitchy lip wouldn’t obey. I kept waiting for the big-name speaker to put this little man in his place.

Do you know what he did?

This hero of mine proved his character. He was just as kind to the conspiracy theorist as he had been to me. He listened carefully, nodding, attentive. He shook hands with the man. He posed for a picture. He made genuinely friendly statements.

My lip settled down and my cheeks started burning. Disgust and contempt had mingled, and my disgust at the man’s ideas had become contempt for the person himself.

My ideals of championing international human rights and the dignity of all people failed me in this moment of action, when I reduced a fellow human to an object of scorn.

Yeah, his ideas were crazy. Of course they wouldn’t work–women and men with far more experience and expertise had already disproven them.

But the man himself was a human being.

My ideas may have been more informed than his, but my personhood was not more valuable than his.

Disgust can be a healthy emotion. I should be disgusted by spoiled chicken, disease-carrying flies, and aberrant behaviors like child molestation; filthy dangers that could harm me or my loved ones. Disgust helps us avoid sickness and injury.

Disgust for wrong ideas can also be healthy. Victim blaming, racism, and human trafficking should disgust me.

Contempt has fewer healthy applications, because it looks down on the object of contempt. Sets itself up as higher-than, better-than. While this can be helpful in setting up the moral boundaries of a community, it can also give way to a lack of sympathy and improper pride. (Wikipedia: Contempt)

Especially in my interpersonal interactions, I want to remember my lesson from the convention and beware of devaluing other people through my contempt.

Image from a photo by Marek Bernat via Stock.Xchng.

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